Pain, politics converge in ergonomics measure

OLYMPIA — In the latest battle of a war that has raged from courthouse to statehouse and back for three years, voters next month will decide whether to repeal sweeping workplace ergonomics rules imposed by the Department of Labor and Industries.

The subject may be dry, but the fight over Initiative 841 evokes classic business-labor battles over suffering workers and oppressive government regulation, with old-fashioned name-calling to boot.

The campaign for Initiative 841, spearheaded by the state's home builders, describes the rules as job-killing regulation run amok and calls the state officials who wrote them "lackeys" for the labor unions.

"The government, at least this current government, and unions, don't trust employers to take care of their employees," said Tom McCabe, the executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The construction business stands to be among the most affected by the rules aimed at cutting down on injuries caused by heavy lifting, repetitive motion and awkward working positions. Other high-risk jobs include grocery checkers, landscapers, couriers and workers in sawmills and nursing homes.

Among the many disputed aspects of the rules is how much money businesses would have to shell out to comply by revamping equipment and redefining workers' jobs. The estimates run as low as $80 million and as high as $800 million, with bitter arguments to match that vast gulf.

Nobody really knows, because though the rules were issued in 2000, they won't be enforced until July 2005 at the earliest.

The unions, which back the rules as common-sense protections, cast the fight as suffering workers vs. big-money business interests.

Doug Gunwall spent 30 years working in Safeway stores, much of it in the repetitive work of grocery checking. Over time, Gunwall says, countless hours of dragging gallons of milk, cases of beer and sacks of potatoes gave him severe carpal-tunnel syndrome that required surgery on both arms and eventually forced him to retire in 1996.

"You just take a look the next time you're in the grocery store," said Gunwall, 55, now a union official with Teamsters Local 38 in Snohomish County. "You look at all the braces and all the hands. It'll just break you down."

Although business interests argue that the costs associated with injured workers are naturally driving them to make common-sense changes, Gunwall says new stores have the same kinds of checkout stands that crippled him.

The issue stretches back to the mid-1990s, when Labor and Industries officials were becoming increasingly aware of the damage workers suffer not from accidents such as slips, falls and cuts, but from the work itself.

Such injuries were accounting for 30 percent of workers'-compensation claims — about 50,000 cases per year — at an annual cost in the tens of millions of dollars, said Michael Silverstein, assistant director for industrial safety and health.

Voluntary programs aimed at persuading employers to make ergonomic changes to their sites and procedures helped, but not enough, he said.

"Among the employers who knew they had problems, 40 percent were doing nothing," Silverstein said. "It was just a huge blind spot, clearly the largest set of unregulated hazards."

So the department created the rules, released in May 2000 to broad acclaim from labor unions.

The rules require employers to determine whether their workers are doing "caution-zone jobs" that might put them at risk of an ergonomics-related injury.

Employers with workers in such jobs must identify hazards, educate workers about them and reduce the hazards if technologically or financially possible.

For example, a grocery checker could be given a different task part of the day to avoid continuous damaging motion. Or a nursing-home attendant could use equipment to move patients instead of lifting them by hand.

The response from business groups was near-universal condemnation, although many individual businesses have embraced the rules, along with the free expertise the state offers.

A coalition of business groups sued to block the rules, arguing that state law didn't give the department the authority to issue them. A lower court rejected the claim. The Washington Supreme Court could issue a ruling soon.

Business also took the battle to the Legislature, pushing repeals of the initiative through the state Senate, only to watch them die in a House committee.

Finally, the builders association decided to go directly to the voters.

I-841's opponents, as well as the state officials behind the rules, protest that the rules have been characterized unfairly.

Silverstein notes the rules have carefully constructed escape hatches for businesses that can't afford to make changes or can't technically change a job enough to comply.